Panhandle Perspectives - Nov. 8, 2016

Western Sustainable Ag Crops and Livestock Conference Dec. 3 at Sidney:
Money-Making Alternative Agricultural Enterprises for Farm Families

 “Money-Making Alternative Agricultural Enterprises for Farm Families” is the theme for the Annual Western Sustainable Ag Crops and Livestock Conference set for Dec. 3 at Sidney.

Panhandle Perspectives
Karen DeBoer

The agenda’s list of topics is diverse: goats; alternative crops such as hops and mint; sidelines such as bee-keeping; and agronomic practices like controlling weeds with propane flaming.

The Western Sustainable Ag Crops and Livestock Conference was initiated by farmers who saw the need for a conference to bring research-based, alternative and value-added agriculture information to farmers and ranchers in western Nebraska. The annual conference provides information for a growing group of farmers and ranchers who are looking for new ways to keep their operations sustainable, according to Nebraska Extension Educator Karen DeBoer, one of the conference organizers.

The conference will take place at Western Nebraska Community College, 371 College Drive in Sidney, from 8:45 a.m. until 4 p.m. Pre-registration is due by Nov. 23.

To download a brochure and registration form, go to http://ckb.unl.edu. For more information about the conference or exhibitor booths, contact Extension Educator Karen DeBoer at the Extension Office in Sidney; telephone 308-254-4455; email: kdeboer1@unl.edu.

Sponsors include Nebraska Extension, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS) and Organic Crop Improvement Association Nebraska Chapter No. 2.

On the evening before the conference, Nebraska craft beers will take the stage during a tasting session for brews from the Cornhusker State. The tasting begins at 7 p.m. in the Best Western Plus, 645 Cabela Drive, and is sponsored by the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society.

Keynote speaker Ron Godin’s topic is “Improving and Maintaining Long-term Soil Health.” Godin, of Delta, Colo., coordinates Colorado State University’s Soil Health Initiative in western Colorado, a farmer-initiated project involving 30 area farmers, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and CSU personnel.

The initiative’s emphasis is increasing cover crops as a way to increase soil organic matter and long-term soil health with little or no tillage. The goal is to have demonstration and research plots on farms around the Uncompahgre Valley that follow sustainable agricultural practices and incorporate livestock with an eye to long-term productivity by building soil health; using multi-species cover crops for nitrogen production; and organic matter to build soil structure, soil tilth and productivity.

Godin said he started working with the soil health initiative about six years ago. In an area that receives 8-10 inches annually, the crops are irrigated, and many of the farmers involved raise continuous corn. Some have a rotation consisting of dry beans-sweet corn-alfalfa (two years)-sweet corn. Numerous farmers grow alfalfa and hay for cattle. Other crops include dry beans, onions, and smaller amounts of vegetables, apples and peaches.

The soil health practices are being implemented on the region’s 3,000 acres of sweet corn, according to Godin. Farmers plant cover-crop cocktails consisting of eight to 15 species after harvest and mob graze cattle on it. (Typically, corn growers turn cattle out on stubble if they haven’t baled and sold the stubble.)

Organic matter is the primary measure of soil health, although farmers in San Miguel County received a grant to start tracking other soil parameters such as bacteria, fungi, total carbon, and total biomass.

According to Godin, the main reason for starting the soil health initiative was to reduce selenium leaching into the river from tail water. The thinking is that increased organic matter and surface cover reduces erosion and leaching, reducing selenium into the river. He says farmers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been pleased with the progress. Farmers, although the largest selenium contributor, are not the only, and unfortunately others are reluctant to get on board, according to Godin.

Godin will also present two workshop topics related to hops, an alternative crop used by craft and commercial-scale beer brewers. UNL is conducting statewide variety trials in Nebraska, and Godin has been involved with hops for more than a decade in western Colorado.

Variety trials were conducted from 2002-2007, and 2015 was the first big production year on the Western Slope. About 10 commercial growers (mostly 10 to 30 acres per grower) produce approximately 100 acres of hops. The lion’s share are sold to Coors subsidiary A.C. Golden, which brews craft beers sold in Colorado.  The remainder are mostly sold to Colorado craft brewers. Growers market their production by visiting breweries in the off season. They usually receive about $15 per dry pound, according to Godin.

The full list of workshop topics at the Sustainable Ag conference:

Intro to Hops Production: Godin will address all the aspects, from trellising to harvest, drying and baling. Hops are a promising profitable alternative crop, but present their challenges and are labor intensive. The demand for locally grown hops by area craft brewers is increasing as craft beers become more popular and the local ingredient movement strengthens. Besides labor, challenges include high initial investment, marketing, choosing the right cultivar to satisfy the local market, and growing high-quality hops to compete with lower-priced hops from large producers in the Pacific Northwest.

Goats: How They Fit into Your Farming Operation: Experienced goat producers Clint Andersen of Rushville and Donna Corfield of Ogallala will explain how to get started raising goats, including marketing, health issues, hoof care, fencing and pastures.

Commercial Mint Production for Western Nebraska: Dr. Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff, is the presenter. Mint is grown primarily for the oil it produces. The climate in western Nebraska is similar to major U.S. mint-producing areas and commercial production of high quality mint oil is possible. The goal of this project is to identify peppermint and spearmint varieties to promote commercial mint production in western Nebraska.

The Nuts and Bolts of Producing Quality Hops: Godin will explain the importance of pruning and training times, using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to keep insects and disease at bay, and how to tell when hops are ready to harvest including drying and conditioning, which is the trickiest and most crucial part of the production.

Utilizing Propane Flaming for Weed Control in Row Crops: Strahinja Stepanovic, Nebraska Extension in Grant, will speak about the principle of propane flaming for weed control; sensitivity of crops and weeds to different propane doses; ability of different crops to tolerate multiple flaming treatments; comparisons of flaming treatments to hand weeding and between-row cultivation; significance of flame-weeding equipment designs in row crop production; and application of flame-weeding in vegetable and fruit production. Organic farmer Larry Stanislav will discuss how he is using the AFI flamer for weed control in soybeans.

Small-scale Beekeeping: Presenter will be Ted Slagle of Ogallala. Many locations that supported large bee operations in the past have switched from legumes to grain crops and are now unacceptable to beekeeping. GMOs, more spraying, new pests, colony collapse and other problems have increased beekeepers’ workload so much that they need to understand location limitations and how to handle the problems presented to them.